“Bhante, there are some ascetics and brahmins who come to Kesaputta. They explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, denigrate, deride, and denounce the doctrines of others. But then some other ascetics and brahmins come to Kesaputta,  and they too explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, denigrate, deride, and denounce the doctrines of others. We are perplexed and in doubt, Bhante, as to which of these good ascetics speak truth and which speak falsehood.”A:3:65
Whether Buddhism is religion or philosophy is a tiresome question. It constantly reappears again and again, like undying zombies from Game of Throne of Walking Dead. People have different opinions about the question, whether Buddhism is religion or philosophy depending on their ideas and perspectives or attitudes towards religion and philosophy.
For some Buddhists, the names categorizing Buddhism are not that important because they think that what is really important is its contents and teachings, and names have nothing to do with what it is.
However, our daily living and thoughts are much influenced by names and language. Thus, for a majority of people, the answer to the question what is Buddhism still matter and concern them. The answer to the question might be gleaned or found from the passage from A/N that I read at the beginning of this talk.
As we know, the Buddha and monks of his disciples traveled around a village to village in the vast Indian continent except for rainy seasons when they should stay at one place for their spiritual practice.
One day, the Buddha visited a town that is called Kesaputta with a large retinue of his disciples. The news did spread to all the corners of the town that Blessed one who is Arahant and perfectly enlightened came to their village. In ancient India, people seem very eager to visit and meet spiritual leaders who were regarded as enlightened. Likewise, many renowned village people visited the place where the Buddha was staying with the monks.
In the passage, a person is speaking to the Buddha. The person said that many spiritual leaders visited the town and each person claimed that he was the knower of truth, but no others. Some of them even disparaged what others talked about although the Buddha didn’t so so.
In the end, the person confesses that he is in doubt and so much confused with that who speaks false and who really speaks the truth. The person’s honest and candid confession is like a question that was put to the Buddha; the question of how we can distinguish truth from falsehood.
It is interesting to see that what the person said about in the passage is quite similar with what is happening today in regard to religions. As Buddhists we claim that Buddhism is of truth, Christians do so and Muslims do so as well. The followers of each religion tend to claim that their religion is of truth. Further, some religious zealots disparage other religions. Even in the worse case, there can happen violence. We know well about religious conflicts and wars that happened in human history and today. Now, we as Buddhists are not free from using violence, which is sad and shame, since Buddhism had been relatively peaceful before.
Before we look at the Buddha’s response to what the person said in the passage, I would like to more think about the reasons; why the person much felt doubt and confusion. The reasons seem obvious and one thing we can say about the person is that the person did not settle down with one set of religious belief and philosophical ideas when he was speaking to the Buddha.
Doubt is regarded as one of the low defilements that are overcome by right view according to the Buddha’s teaching. In general, confusion and doubt arise in our minds when we don’t know and see exactly what something is. This means that you heard something but you haven’t seen it in person or in your eyes. Religions talk about something transcendental like God, spirits, enlightenment. But these are not what we can see it with our senses.
Also, doubt and confusion arise something is beyond our experience. You heard something, but there is no empirical evidence to support it. Also, religions talk about something beyond our experiences like death, heaven, reincarnation so on. There is no empirical evidence for these ideas. Therefore, as long as human history lasts and goes, doubt and confusion also last and remain.
Whether Buddhism is religion or philosophy is a tiresome and also very tricky question since religion and philosophy was not clearly divided in the ancient time of Greek and India and in the east as well as we know well. In the modern world, people like to categorize and give a name to something unfamiliar. Buddhism was new to the West and should be classified in western thought. The question that Buddhism is religion or philosophy has been controversial and is still ongoing. It seems that it will never stop soon.
Many people, especially in the west, think and claim that Buddhism is philosophy, but not of religion. According to their standard and judgment, Buddhism is not qualified to become a religion. And one of the reasons that Buddhism cannot be categorized as a religion is because there is no God like Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. They think that God as the creator of the universe is the essential criteria by which a set of ideas can be thought of as a religion or philosophy. They cannot think of religion without the concept of God. But we know that this is some kind of west-centric idea that does not help much to solve the question.
Being asked by the question of whether Buddhism is religion and philosophy ever since that time, many Buddhist thinkers or monks tried to address it. While many scholars and monks tried to designate Buddhism as a religion, there is one group of Buddhist thinkers and monks, whose answers are similar to each other. This group of people said that it does not matter how you call Buddhism or whichever name you attach to Buddhism because name and language cannot change its nature. These people argue that Buddhism is not affected and changed by what people think because Buddhism is about truth and truth is not changed by name and language.
Ironically, each of all religions can use exactly the same argument that their religion is of truth that does not change anyhow.
Years ago, I was taking a class in college. The name of the class is Buddhism and Islam which compare two religion. The professor who made the class thought that Buddhism was a good example of atheistic whereas Islam is a good example of theistic religion. (add Buddhism is not exactly atheism). It was a meaningful class to better know and understand other religion’s doctrine and history and differences due to the importance of religious tolerance in modern society.
One day, a Muslim girl in the class asked the professor how the Buddha could proclaim that he was enlightened to know and see the truth. Who knows that he was deceived by his self-illusion? Who can guarantee his enlightenment? In the end, she finished her question by adding words that Koran that is Islam bible is the truth because it came from God.
I was sitting right next to the girl who always came to the class wearing Hijab and was stunned to hear what she said. I bluntly said, “are you kidding?” Who can guarantee Koran came from God?” I know I should not have said that. Sudden tension raised and the professor, who is a Christian minister, stopped our conversation. The professor was well aware that the conversion had no point since there are fundamental gaps among different religious beliefs although some religions have similarities in their doctrine.
Interestingly, the Muslim girl’s argument about Buddhism is very similar with the argument of the Buddhist people who claim that Buddhism is the truth so it is not important whether Buddhism is called as a religion or philosophy. As a Buddhist monk, I also used to think this way.
But while studying religion in general, I came to the conclusion at a certain point that the attitude that monopolizes truth with her or his religious belief is not much helpful and conducive in this diverse society. Every religion and its followers can say the same argument on and on.
Then, if someone asks the question, I would like to give an answer that Buddhism is ‘a religion’ among many, but not the religion. Giving the answer that Buddhism is religion seems to sound boring and very not interesting.
However, I think that we Buddhist people should regard Buddhism as a religion. Furthermore, we must not monopolize truth by proclaiming it is the truth so that it does not need a name for it: although in our mind Buddhism is the ultimate truth that has to be unshakable faith. Otherwise, the violences that some Buddhists are also wielding like other religious zealots will not stop. I think this is why Buddhism should be regarded as a religion among many, but not as the religion. This attitude not monopolizing truth might be better in diverse society like New York where we live now.
Faith should be unshakable but it also should be flexible to live with others in harmony.
The attitude that allows other possibilities can be applied to our daily life as well. Our conflicts with other people likely occur when we are adamant with our own perspectives, convictions, and beliefs.
You may not agree with what I just said. Then, please allow my opinion as one of the possibilities for the answer to the question.